From its beginnings amongst the urban poor in New York (sometime between the late ‘60s and mid ‘70s), hip hop has gone from the rawness of block parties and ‘battles’ to a multi-million dollar industry spanning music, fashion, film and hyper-celebrity. However, when we strip out the spectacle of the bling adorned rapper and the excesses it often entails, the dance culture of hip hop has retained much of its original, improvisational ethos and, significantly, its currency in minority and immigrant communities.
Indeed, according to Sydney-based b-boy (and now internationally renowned choreographer) Nick Power, “In the dance community, the culture has been really preserved.”
The distinction matters. Whereas hip hop’s corporatised music arm is known for its vulgar displays of wealth, alpha posing and crass sexualisation, the dance arm has stayed largely true to the movement palette, athleticism and spirit of creative competition that first emerged in the boroughs of NYC. Thus, hip hop’s choreographic universe still includes breaking, uprock, boogaloo and other micro-forms.
“That’s the culture I come from,” Power confirms. “I’m a b-boy, and I’ve been dancing for 25 years, so all my background is around going to jams or battling and breaking and being in crews. You know, it was never around money or violence or things like that; it was always around skills and respect, and exchange and competition and community. So really, that’s where I take all my cues from.”
It is perhaps ironic that these cues should now lead him to stage a pair of his works in two of Australia’s premier high arts festivals in early 2020. After debuting Two Crews at the Sydney Festival in January, he will mount it again, along with his acclaimed work, Between Tiny Cities, at the prestigious Adelaide Festival of Arts in March. Not only is this a million miles from the gritty streets of Brooklyn, outer suburban Sydney or Phnom Penh, but the shaping of the breaks into choreographed and repeatable performance pieces is similarly at odds with the traditionally freestyle aesthetic of hip hop.
That said, crossing divides is very much part of Power’s oeuvre. From remote indigenous communities in the Northern Territory to the stages of European capitals, he has danced, taught, directed and headed up festivals. Indeed, since its premiere at Melbourne’s Dance Massive in 2017, Between Tiny Cities has played in Hong Kong, Vienna and Berlin (amongst others) and been nominated for Green Room and Australian Dance Awards.
Of the transition from b-boy to globe trotting dance maker, he recalls simply, “I was at this point where I’d done a lot of battling and things in traditional hip hop culture, and I was wondering where else it could go.”
In the case of Between Tiny Cities, it took him from Darwin, where he was working with D City Rockers, to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, where he collaborated with an outfit called Tiny Toones.
Yet, as he recalls, the process that led to the creation of the work was more organic than carefully contrived. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, let’s go and do contemporary performance.’ It just started out as this exchange,” he reveals. “Tiny Toones, who are this NGO hip hop organisation [in Phnom Penh] that teaches people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to schooling, came to Darwin, and I was asked to be the ‘in-between between’ them and D City Rockers; and basically they just kind of hit the studio. So then, there was this usual thing where they were like, ‘Who’s got the skills?’, and they battled; and then everything was cool. It was kind of like they had to sort it out in the hip hop style first.”
Post ‘sorting’, what emerged was a two hander. “There was one dancer in each crew who was interested in taking it to this more choreographic realm and creating a performance,” Power says. “Of course, we kind of left it open for everyone, but you know, not all b-boys and girls want to do that; but Erak [Mith] and Aaron [Lim] definitely did.”
Whereas Tiny Cities is a duet featuring Cambodian Mith and Australian Lim, Two Crews harks back to hip hop’s group-based ethos. The work sees Paris-based all-female crew Lady Rocks and Riddim Nation from Western Sydney pairing up to battle. Of this piece, Power notes that it reflects the “true cornerstone of hip hop.”
Here again, we see the gap between the gold chain, unit shifting version of hip hop and the communal/participatory model. “I saw in recent years crew identity and their importance being a bit eroded by competitions held by multinational energy drinks,” Power elaborates. “They’re all geared toward one-on-one competition and ‘who’s the best in the world?’ It’s a bit of a reflection on the culture of the world, I guess. You know, individualism and money and all that. And so I thought, there’s something important about a crew, so I wanted to juxtapose two crews from opposite ends of the world — one all-female, and one that kind of represented multicultural Western Sydney.”
As a lifelong b-boy, though, Power is acutely aware that coalescing hip hop’s free form dance language into theatrical performance is both an aesthetic and cultural challenge. When creating Tiny Cities and Two Crews, he was careful to avoid making steps. Rather, he created structures and cue points. “There are all these super, highly skilled dancers with all these moves, so for me to come in and tell them how to move just seemed ludicrous,” he notes.
Furthermore, the standard ‘season’ concept, let alone the idea of the arts and dance festival, sits well outside the usual realm of breakers, lockers and top rockers. Power illustrates it thus. “When we did our first season of Tiny Cities in Melbourne, the first show was great, the second wasn’t quite as good, and then on our third show it started to fall down a bit; and I was like, ‘Ah, these guys aren’t used to doing a five or seven show season.’ So then, we had to really work hard on that understanding of a whole season and really focusing in before the shows.”
This process, however, is perhaps symbolic of hip hop’s evolution from working class Afro/Latino expression to global entertainment phenomenon. In this way, both Between Tiny Cities and Two Crews stand at the juncture of the form’s past and its many possible futures.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.